My heart aches today knowing that my beloved home town of Detroit now has the notoriety of being the largest American city to officially file for bankruptcy. But the filing was really just a formality. Detroit has really been broke, broken and in decay now for decades — a shell of a city, with a small downtown and some scattered neighborhoods dissected by miles of abandoned storefronts and vacant lots.
The Detroit I remember ceased to exist a long time ago. But it was kept alive by a pride, a nostalgia for its former glory, and an illusion that revival was just around the next corner. We who love Detroit — even people like me who abandoned it long ago — were all complicit. I could visit for a week or a weekend, set the rental car stereo to the Motown oldies or classic Detroit rock songs from a bygone era, take in a Tigers game, have a hot dog and a Vernors ginger ale at Lafayette Coney Island downtown, and comfort myself with the fiction that this was still the same city I knew growing up as a kid.
After years of financial struggle, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 Federal Bankruptcy Protection on Thursday, the largest U.S. city to do so.
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Of course, the old neighborhoods are nothing like they were. My older cousins and aunties in their 70s, 80s and 90s are still in the same houses as before. But theirs are some of the few houses still standing on streets that are now mostly abandoned; they live behind metal burglar bars on their windows and the curtains and shades pulled tight. If I go in the winter, I know their streets will never be cleared of snow and ice, so the driving is treacherous. And I never go out at night. My old house on McGraw Street burned down and was reduced to rubble years ago.
Most of the old-time residents say they never plan to move, even though city services are virtually nonexistent in the old neighborhoods and most of the neighbors are gone. It’s a pride, a stubbornness and an attitude of “I bought this home 40 years ago, and no crack addicts or gangbangers are going to drive me out of it!”
It’s that attitude that led many Detroiters to instantly reject Mayor Dave Bing’s plan to shrink the size of the sprawling city to geographically consolidate the people, and the services. It’s an admirable obstinacy Detroiters have. It’s also why the city was destined to go bust.
Bing aside, much of the political class is also bankrupt. Detroit politics has been wracked by a series of corruption scandals, going back to the Coleman Young years. The last elected mayor before Bing, Kwame Kilpatrick — better known as the “Player Mayor” for his extravagant lifestyle of bling and parties — sits in prison for felony corruption. But Detroiters are prideful and protective of their own; even when Kilpatrick and his associates were shown to be corrupt, many Detroiters came out to support him, blaming the prosecutors for unfairly targeting a black elected official.
In fact, therein lies the real truth about Detroit, one that I’m loath to admit. For all my fond memories of Detroit from the 1960s and ’70s, it was always one of America’s most racially polarized cities. Older Detroiters are correct that the city was surrounded by a ring of often-hostile white suburbs, in a largely conservative state that had little time for a poor, destitute, Democratic and black city.